Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Seth MacFarlane is one of those comedians that people have very strong opinions about one way or the other. His fans think he's hilarious, edgy, and insightful, one of the best comics working today. His detractors think he's juvenile, puerile, and retrograde, unfit to shine the shoes of Mel Brooks. Perhaps the closest comparison I can think of is Andrew Dice Clay, another comedian whose raunchy humor provoked both adoration and outrage. As for me, his work splits me down the middle. Some of his stuff (his short-lived sitcom Dads, the time he hosted the Oscars) is downright wretched and truly cringeworthy for all the wrong reasons, but when he's good (as with Ted and the better episodes of his animated series), you start to understand why he and his brand of humor are so popular.

Unfortunately, his latest film, A Million Ways to Die in the West, falls squarely into the former category. Given that he's made a Western here, it would've been difficult for him to employ his usual pop culture humor, but he doesn't make up for that with any real insights on the genre beyond his protagonist's rants about how much life in the Wild West sucks. The rest of the jokes are pretty much an endless stream of gross-outs and sex jokes that wear thin after about thirty minutes, while the disjointed plot does nothing to make up for it. While the cinematography is beautiful and some of the actors are pretty good, it's nowhere near enough to redeem a true stinker of a comedy.

Let's get one thing out of the way now: the shadow of Blazing Saddles looms large over this film. It is pretty much impossible to make a comedic Western without running head-first into comparisons to Mel Brooks' classic satire, and to his credit, MacFarlane goes out of his way to avoid such. His racial humor is toned down, only being used on rare occasions (particularly a great cameo by Jamie Foxx at the end), and none of the gags in this film try to homage any of Brooks'. The problem is that most of what MacFarlane does come up with just isn't funny. It's one of those movies where all of the funniest scenes were spoiled in the trailers, with the rest of it being just filthy for the sake of being filthy. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman's characters, a lovestruck young man and his prostitute girlfriend, were the worst examples of this, the sex jokes coming out of their mouths employing neither actor's considerable talents and the two of them having absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film. It's the kiss of death for a comedy, the fact that it wasn't getting any more than mild chuckles out of me for the whole of its bloated run time of almost two hours, most of which is padded with the same awful jokes. I'm a sucker for sick humor, but even I ran out of patience soon enough and started practically begging this film to diversify its routine.

As if the lack of humor wasn't enough, MacFarlane himself is almost insufferable whenever he's in front of the camera. His character, a sheep farmer named Albert Stark, is an asshole who constantly whines about how much he hates living in the West while still living with his parents, and after his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried in a thankless role) dumps him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a rich douchebag with a nice mustache, he transforms into an obnoxious "nice guy" stereotype complaining about how his ex-girlfriend is shallow and into assholes and fails to see what a great guy he is... all without looking into the mirror at just why people don't seem to like him. And at the end, when he's proven himself a hero and Louise asks for him back, he dumps her and rides off into the sunset with his new lover Anna (Charlize Theron). Forget Neighbors (which deconstructed that sort of attitude) -- this is the sort of film you ought to be looking at when you're wondering about the sort of culture that produces guys like Elliot Rodger. Here's the thing about MacFarlane: he's great when he's playing doofuses like Peter Griffin, or assholes like Brian Griffin and Ted the teddy bear. Ask him to play a hero, however, and he can't seem to ditch those fundamentally unlikable qualities. When I should have been rooting for Albert, I was instead cheering for Foy and the outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson, whose great performance is also utterly wasted) to knock some sense into him.

And speaking of which, the plot is a mess. For the first two acts of the movie, Clinch is an afterthought, only showing up once to justify getting Charlize Theron into town, so when he replaced Foy as the film's real villain it threw me for a loop. I mean, we were finally getting a proper Western rather than a continuing tirade of whining from Albert, but on the other hand, almost nothing had been done to set up Neeson's character or that new plot before then. I'd say the same thing that I said about In a World... with regards to MacFarlane's background in television, but MacFarlane had already proven with Ted that he can make quality comedies with not only real humor, but also interesting characters and stories, so he had a lot less excuse than Lake Bell did for this film feeling so disjointed. Not only is the story with Foy and Louise largely dropped once Clinch steps into town, but Albert's much-needed character development, which could've redeemed him as the hero, is pretty much undone and he reverts into the same sort of asshole he was at the start of the film. By the end, I couldn't bother to care about most of these people, least of all Albert.

I say "most of these people" because, if this film has one redeeming value, it's Charlize Theron as Anna. She was the only good actor in this film who got any good screen time or development, and it was thanks to her that Anna easily became the most watchable character in the whole movie. If you ask me, this movie should've been about her and her attempts to escape from her marriage to Clinch, with Albert being only a side character in her story. I was more interested in her than any of the other people in this, at any rate. Furthermore, the film makes the vistas of Monument Valley and New Mexico look truly stunning, and the sights of such were the only points where this film truly felt like a Western. The Western genre is probably the best tourism advertisement that the Four Corners region of the Southwest has ever had, and this film carries on that proud tradition, at least.

Score: 1 out of 5

Even the most diehard fans of Seth MacFarlane are advised to skip this and watch Ted or one of his animated shows again. It's little more than two hours of lame jokes that try too hard to shock, a plot that gets sidetracked much too easily, and an ostensible "protagonist" that made me want to kick him square in the nuts. At least the coupon I had meant that I only had to pay a dollar to see this.

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